What lies beneath: Educating the brain...

Vanessa Bird

Vanessa Bird is a teacher from Sussex who has taught science for over 20 years. She has remained fascinated by the nature of Science learning but has an equal interest in the arts. She has degrees in History and Chemistry, and feels that the different subjects have much to share in terms of their approaches to learning. She delivers training on a range of teaching techniques within her school but she is always looking for new ways to enhance learning in the classroom.

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Image credit: "The man with two brains" (1983) Warner Brothers Pictures, all rights reserved Image credit: "The man with two brains" (1983) Warner Brothers Pictures, all rights reserved

Every day we learn more about the brain. While psychologists develop ever more sophisticated models of how we think, neuroscientists are mapping the physical and chemical architecture that underpins these thoughts. Is it possible we may finally have some real insights into how our students learn rather than well researched guess work? It is still early days but young teachers today may see the biggest intellectual sea change in education since Binet’s IQ test in 1911 and Piaget’s theories in 1920. This article summarises a few useful ideas to work on in the meantime!

"Many English teachers get students to see performances of the works they are studying."

We now know that the brain is an inveterate pattern-finding machine and will even see pictures where there are none, for example the famous “old lady young woman” optical illusion. This means activities which help us to see real patterns are very powerful learning tools. Marzano estimates that using a Venn diagram to sort or classify ideas that fit, overlap or do not fit a set of categories can be four times more effective than doing homework, because it emphasises similarities and differences.5

In the last decade, scientists have also discovered mirror neurons in the brain whose main purpose it to help us mimic someone else’s actions when learning a new task. In teaching, this shows the importance of letting a student see an expert and non-expert at work so they can build their own mental picture.2

Mirror neurones have another job and enable us to empathise and engage in emotional response and to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’. Many English teachers get students to see performances of the works they are studying. This allows students to ‘see’ the emotion of the actors as they interpret the written text, but perhaps getting them to mimic some of the experience themselves could enrich their learning still further.

Another interesting avenue is the ability of a child to engage in ‘double knowledge’ like a child using a banana as a mock telephone receiver. Many teachers do this instinctively by getting students to use everyday analogies and act out ideas, but we are beginning to understand how this helps children to map the world around them. For example, we have discovered that all newborn infants have so many connections between sensory neurons that they cannot distinguish between a taste, sound, sight, touch or smell of a new object. By four months, these connections have started to snap but metaphorical language suggests that we can still use synaesthesia to understand new ideas when we are older.

"Humour often forms part of a teaching kit for more successful practitioners."

In a recent study Ramchandran introduced new words to describe a spiky and an amoeboid shape, participants naturally chose the word “boupa” for the amoeboid and “kiki” for the spiky one. Metaphors are clearly powerful teaching tools and may explain the appeal and success of some accelerated learning techniques.4 Getting students to develop analogies or metaphors for new concepts either visually or kinaesthetically may indeed help students to make a link between the abstract and the concrete.

Steven Pinker now believes that even more abstract thought is metaphorical and will ultimately explain human intelligence. Metaphors and jokes both involve unexpected twists on language. The audience usually experiences surprise followed by sudden insight. Humour often forms part of a teaching kit for more successful practitioners. It turns out there is a strong correlation between mathematics and jokes in terms of cognitive load and satisfaction when the problem is solved. Jokes stimulate the same linguistic and pattern processing parts of the brain as metaphors. We also know that the greater cognitive effort the greater the positive feeling experienced when insight is achieved. This feeds into another brain related mechanism, that of motivation and dopamine or the feel good hormone.

The brain is geared for efficiency and will avoid boredom and also frustration using a dopamine feedback mechanism. If dopamine levels are too low because a task is too easy or too difficult, the brain loses interest and will divert to something more emotionally satisfying like chatting to a friend! If the task is pitched at the right level, then a dopamine high will result.6 So this humble neurotransmitter is the golden egg we seek through differentiation. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, a task needs to be just challenging enough, not too hard and not too easy!

We are rapidly moving beyond the simple neuroscientific ideas behind welcoming classroom environments and reducing a student’s flight or fight response with its associated adrenaline release and impaired learning.3 It will take more research to bridge the gap between brain architecture and teaching technique but we now have more clues about what might actually work and where to focus our efforts. Psychologists like Carol Dweck know that a student who has a growth mindset will prove more resilient and often more successful regardless of the techniques used.1 Perhaps one day neuroscience will also suggest a reliable way to build that resilience.


  1. S.Blackmore and U. Frith (2005), The Learning Brain:Lessons for education, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford
  2. C.Dweck (2000), Self-Theories: their role in motivation, personality and development, Taylor & Francis, New York
  3. J.G.Geake, The Brain at school, Open University Press, Maidenhead
  4. J.Geary (2011), I is an other, Harper Perennial, London
  5. G. Petty (2006), Evidence based teaching, Nelson Thornes 
  6. D.Sousa and J.Tomlinson (2011), Differentiation and the Brain, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington

Is the workings of the brain an interest to your work? Let us know in the comments.

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